Enter the World of Black Women Artists in the Bay Area

SAN FRANCISCO — When I heard that black woman is god was back in person, I put on my mask and walked across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco. Now in its seventh year and fifth iteration at the SOMArts Cultural Center, this annual showcase of black female visual artists is a staple of Black Bay area culture, with opening receptions that often incorporate live music and performances. ritual processions functioning as a large family reunion of sorts.

The project, the brainchild of Oakland-based artist and educator Karen Seneferu with San Francisco-based artist and curator Melorra Green, debuted in 2013 at the African American Art & Culture Complex (AAACC), where Green is co-executive director. Two years later, he held his largest exhibition to date – over 80 visual artists, 20 performers and 35 dancers and drummers – at his new home, SOMArts. In 2018, he crossed the bridge to Oakland, exhibiting at three black women-owned galleries, as well as AAACC and SoMARTS. Unsurprisingly, the duo took the following year to build infrastructure to support this rapid growth, with plans to return in 2020, but then COVID-19 hit. The gallery and exhibition have been forced to pivot, but the move to a digital exhibition last year has actually increased the global reach in terms of artists and audiences. This year’s exhibition, which opened just as Omicron arrived, has more works by fewer artists, and black woman is god continues to evolve, with plans underway to develop a podcast and YouTube channel and to introduce literature into the mix. Seneferu told Hyperallergic, “We are pioneers in creating spaces, especially for black female artists to showcase the history, culture and value they bring to society, even if they don’t were not at the heart of the stories of this one.”

The Blueprint: If The Universe Can Be Imagined, It Exists: Black Woman Is Godinstallation view at the SOMArts Cultural Center (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

This year’s iteration, The Master Plan: If the Universe Can Be Imagined, It Exists, follows two years of intense activity centered on black women artists in the Bay Area. As always, joy and celebration are strong themes, with images of black mermaids, stylized comic strips of local leaders and brightly colored, sparkling women. Ritual, healing and spiritual identity is another major focus, with Seneferu stating in the press release that “The plan goes beyond the realization that outside forces have shaped the black community to realize that they are their own source of healing.

Two mixed media paintings by artist and teacher Nicole Dixon were inspired by Octavia Butler’s visionary novel, The parable of the sower, as well as by mother earth herself. His archetypal women with braided hair and burnished ebony skin that seem lit from within are adorned with gold leaf Adinkra symbols and real wood plaques. A series of digital prints by Asantewaa Boykin, ER nurse and co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, explore physical transcendence. In “The Observers”, a dark female figure with a white, mask-like face stands on the edge of two worlds, negative space flowing around her. Observed or perhaps observer, she waits, arms crossed, eyes closed, wearing a fabric mask whose end is covered with a cowrie, a symbol of abundance and fertility.

Installation view, “The Observers” (2021), “7” (2021) and “Yaa Negrita” (2021) by Asantewaa Boykin at SOMArts Cultural Center (image courtesy of SOMArts Cultural Center)

As I browsed through the exhibition, which features several pieces by 25 artists, most of whom also count writing, education and activism among their complex creative practices, artistic range, ethnic diversity and the intersectionality of black women were fully exposed. Seneferu and Green opened doors that were historically closed to black women, curating a mix of emerging, self-taught, veteran, and formally trained artists. This non-hierarchical approach fosters intergenerational relationships and exchanges, creating opportunities, as Seneferu told Hyperallergic, for “the emergence of learning from those who have spent more time in these spaces, and for young artists to inspire and teach artists who have been participating longer in the artistic arena.

The Blueprint: If The Universe Can Be Imagined, It Exists: Black Woman Is Godinstallation view at the SOMArts Cultural Center (photo by Rich Lomibao, courtesy SOMArts)

Although I was sad to have missed opening night, with its crowd and energy, black woman is god maintains its commitment to audience engagement, with free community programming through the end of the month and a massive single-channel video installation at the front of the gallery. Like videos like “I Still Can’t Breathe,” which features young Turf dancers performing in front of Oakland street art commemorating victims of police brutality, and “Pretty Girls,” a positive beauty campaign from influential musical artist and cultural organizer Coco Peila featuring blues legend Taj Mahal, played it was impossible not to be moved, literally. Obviously, in any universe created by black women, there will be music. And dancing.

“I Still Can’t Breathe”, video directed by Taylor “Made” Mosley, featuring Telice (photo by author for Hyperallergic)

The Master Plan: If the Universe Can Be Imagined, It Existsthe latest edition of black woman is godcontinues at the SOMArts Cultural Center (934 Brannan Street, San Francisco) until February 6. The exhibition was curated by Karen Seneferu and Melorra Green. Participating visual artist Tarika Lewis will lead a free workshop exploring divine protection and generational healing on Thursday, February 3, from 4-6 p.m. (PDT).

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